Colonial Williamsburg® The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's Official History and Citizenship Website

Page content
Reset text sizeResize text larger

November 30, 2010

Jamestown Settlers Create Pipe Dreams For Virginia Company Stockholders, English Elites

New discoveries at Historic Jamestowne underscore the commercial nature of the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Archaeologists with the Jamestown Rediscovery Project recently excavated a number of unique tobacco pipe stems inscribed with the names of prominent early 17th-century Englishmen.

Recovered from a circa 1608-1610 well in James Fort, the pipes bear lettering that spell out enough of eight individual names to identify them as elite English politicians, military heroes, social leaders, maritime explorers, officers of the Virginia Company and governors of the Virginia colony. The names include Sir Charles Howard, Lord High Admiral of England; New World explorer Sir Walter Raleigh; Earl of Southampton Henry Wriothesley, Virginia Company official and William Shakespeare’s major patron; Lord De La Warre Sir Thomas West; Capt. Samuel Argall, major Virginia Company investor and governor of Virginia; and Francis Nelson, a captain of the second Virginia supply fleet. Two of the pipe stems bear partial markings: one bears the initials of a “Sir W.C.,” likely indicating Sir Walter Cope, Virginia Company councilor and London antique collector, the other bears the first three letter of the name Robert, likely signifying Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury who was King James’ principal minister — prime mover of the 1604 peace treaty with Spain — and the lead investor of the Virginia Company in 1609.

The discovery of the named pipes begs the question: Why produce personalized pipes? Dr. William Kelso, Historic Jamestowne's director of archaeological research and interpretation, believes the pipes were made to impress Virginia Company investors and political elites with the viability of the Jamestown enterprise. “There was intense pressure on the Jamestown colonists to show instant success to the people with the purses,” Kelso said. “The colonists needed to prove they could produce fortune-making exports that would satisfy the get-rich-quick expectations of the Virginia Company investors. Their very lives depended on it. Without investors funding supply ships, the colonists in the Virginia wilderness would lose their lifeline to the Mother Country.”

Contrary to popular conjecture, the Jamestown colony was not a random group of adventurers. Some were carefully chosen people with skill sets that could exploit the resources of the New World. When Capt. Nelson brought 120 immigrants to Jamestown in 1608, the group included Robert Cotton, a tobacco pipe maker who likely fashioned the pipes found in the well.

By the time Jamestown was settled, smoking imported tobacco from America was all the rage in Europe, creating a huge demand for pipes. The flourishing London pipe industry relied exclusively on a particular hard-firing white clay found only in Dorset along the southern coast of England, and the pipemakers soon found themselves hostage to a white clay monopoly. Virginia Company investors saw a way to beat the monopoly and share in the profits of the lucrative new industry. They added pipe making to the industries to be propagated in the Virginia wilderness. Most likely Cotton was sent by the Virginia Company to assess the Tidewater clays for their potential in pipe making and pottery production. If the clays proved adequate, it could break the monopoly held by the Dorset clay merchants in the London pipemaking industry and allow the London investors in the Virginia Company to participate in lucrative pipe clay exports to the Netherlands.

Evidence points to manufacture of the pipes between 1608 and 1610. Most of the pipe fragments were uncovered within a very narrow context of time, almost certainly thrown into the well in 1610. Cotton must have brought to Virginia a set of printer’s type, which would have enabled him to stamp — letter by letter — the names into the stems of the pipes he created. The stem fragments are probably the remains of “wasters” — pipes that failed to survive the ceramic firing process in his kiln.

Survival of the named “waster” pipes in the well suggests that Cotton may have made many more individualized pipes for Virginia Company investors and other powerful members of the 17th-century British establishment.

Discovery of the named pipes may lead to new examination of thousands of other artifacts recovered earlier at Jamestown. “Each new discovery has meaning beyond its own significance,” said Bly Straube, senior archaeological curator for the Jamestown Rediscovery Project. “These pipes could very well lead to reconsideration of the evidence from other fort contexts, not only to determine what these new finds mean, but also their bearing on previous findings.”

Historic Jamestowne is jointly administered by Preservation Virginia and the National Park Service and preserves the original site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Preservation Virginia and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation formed a new collaboration in the fall of 2010 with the goal of connecting the histories of Jamestown and Williamsburg through compelling stories of discovery, diversity and democracy. This initiative brings together experts from Historic Jamestowne and Colonial Williamsburg to enhance public archaeology and create a broader, more cohesive guest experience.

Visitors to Historic Jamestowne share the moment of discovery with archaeologists and witness archaeology-in-action at the 1607 James Fort excavation April-October; learn about the Jamestown Rediscovery excavation at the Nathalie P. and Alan M. Voorhees Archaearium, the site's archaeology museum; tour the original 17th-century church tower and reconstructed 17th-century Jamestown Memorial Church; and take a walking tour with a Park Ranger through the New Towne area along the scenic James River. For further information, visit or call (757) 229-0412 or (757) 229-1733.

Preservation Virginia, a private non-profit organization and statewide historic preservation leader founded in 1889, is dedicated to perpetuating and revitalizing Virginia's cultural, architectural and historic heritage thereby ensuring that historic places are integral parts of the lives of present and future generations. Its mission is directly consistent with and supportive of Article XI of the Constitution of Virginia to protect the historical sites and buildings in the Commonwealth benefiting both the Commonwealth and the nation. Preservation Virginia provides leadership, experience, influence and services to the public and special audiences by saving, managing, and protecting historic places, and developing preservation policy, programs, and strategies with individuals, organizations, and local, state, and national partners.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational and cultural organization dedicated to the preservation, interpretation and presentation of the restored 18th-century Revolutionary capital of Virginia. This town-sized living history museum tells the inspirational stories of our journey to become Americans through programs in the Historic Area and through the award-winning Revolutionary City program. Explore The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg and discover the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum featuring the best in British and American decorative arts from 1670 – 1830 and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum home to the nation’s premier collection of American folk art, comprising more than 5,000 folk art objects made during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Colonial Williamsburg Hotels feature conference spaces and recreation activities from spa and fine dining to world-class golf. Colonial Williamsburg is committed to expanding its thought-provoking programming through education outreach on-site and online. Purchase of Colonial Williamsburg products and services supports the preservation, research and educational programs of the Foundation.

Williamsburg and Historic Jamestowne are located in Virginia’s Tidewater region, 20 minutes from Newport News, within an hour’s drive of Richmond and Norfolk, and 150 miles south of Washington, D.C. For more information about Colonial Williamsburg, call 1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg’s website at

Media Contact:
Jim Bradley
(757) 220-7281